Molly Girl-A Day in The Life of a Therapy Dog
by Robert Hudson
For Pam & Don Harris, nothing is more rewarding than sharing the love their dog Molly Girl has for giving people comfort and smiles. Molly brings joy to people facing hardship, recovery from illness, the elderly, and children. Who can not resist a smile when looking at Molly’s adorable face?
Molly is currently 8 1/2 years old, and was four when Pam and Don adopted her. “We found “Mollie” on Petfinder.com. Her pictures showed a shaved Sheltie with a beautiful smile. We knew we wanted a Sheltie, and I wanted a dog who had the temperament to be a therapy dog.
Molly was at the Humane Society of Southeast Texas (HSSET),” Pam told me . “Her AKC papers were included in her file, so she is a purebred sheltie. Her first family had never filed her papers with AKC. We opted not to file the papers either, because we didn’t care whether she was a purebred or if she was a mix. We did change Mollie’s name to Molly. After all, she was only 4 years old, and she didn’t know how to spell yet. Molly was left with HSSET because her new human brother was allergic to her. Her first family shaved her, hoping that would help with allergies. Our vet told us that shaving a dog does nothing to help with allergies.”
Training and Certification For a Therapy Dog
There is no formal training to be a therapy dog, but there are important qualifications to be certified.
‘We were very lucky in that Molly was fully obedience trained when she came to us. We just had to get her to respond to us when we asked her to do something. I was the primary person who worked with her, since I was the one who would be taking the therapy dog test with her. (To this day, she obeys me better than her dad!)
I enrolled her in a beginning obedience class for adult dogs. Molly also took a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) class and test, which is a great foundation for any therapy dog. Finally, we took a therapy dog class. Since Molly would be volunteering at hospitals, the therapy dog class gave us practice in additional skills needed in healthcare settings, such as being around wheelchairs and walkers. Therapy dogs also need a strong “leave it” command, so that they don’t pick up things off hospital floors. Six months after we adopted Molly, we passed our therapy dog test and started volunteering. Molly has been serving as a therapy dog for four years.”
Follow the Rules
Hospitals have strict rules one must follow and it may seem daunting. “Molly and I are credentialed with 5 different hospitals in the Oklahoma City metro area. I was surprised when I started the process to become a hospital volunteer. It takes weeks! I had background checks, drug tests, tests for tuberculosis, pictures for badges (for Molly and me), and a blood test to check for titers of measles and chicken pox. (They wouldn’t accept the notes my mom wrote in my baby book as proof I’d had those childhood diseases! Each hospital repeated some subset of the above.”
“Polo shirts are provided by the hospital, so that we are recognized as volunteers. On two occasions, I’ve worn the wrong shirt to a hospital! I didn’t realize it until I got home. (So embarrassing!) One hospital even requires that our pants, shoes, and socks all match; they have to be all black or all white.
Each hospital has its own set of rules for what areas the dogs can visit. Most of our hospitals let us visit ICUs and ERs, in addition to the regular floors. My personal focus has always been visiting hospital staff. People always assume we visit hospitals to see patients and their families. I quickly learned that it’s difficult for me to do visits with patients in beds. Molly is a medium-sized, 30-pound dog. She’s too heavy for me to hold up, and she’s too small for patients to reach her if she’s on the floor.”
It is a Passion!
“I was initially drawn in by a friend’s social media pictures of her therapy dog volunteering at a cancer center. It touched my heart, and I wanted to volunteer with a dog, too. I’ve long believed that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” This is my small way of giving back to my community, sharing God’s love, and bringing hope in the world.
Molly is actually my second therapy dog. My first one, Kacey, was a Sheltie from the Kansas City Sheltie Rescue. We had two years of volunteering together before she suddenly became ill, and we lost her. I had all of my hospital credentials, and I wanted to continue my therapy dog work,” according to Pam
The First Visit
‘Molly’s first visit to a hospital was wonderful! I’d been without my volunteer work for months. It was fun to see Molly walking down long hospital halls with a big smile on her face. The staff was especially happy to meet my new therapy dog. It’s so fun that the dogs have their own hospital photo ID badges. Everyone loves seeing a dog with a badge!”
Visits That Pull Your Heartstrings
I asked Pam what her most memorable visit is. “There have been many instances where Molly has been in the right place at the right time. Personally, I believe God put us right where we needed to be. I will always remember a time when I accidentally went down a wrong hall outside of an ICU area and saw a man with two children coming out of the ICU. All of them were crying. When Molly and I approached and I asked if they wanted to pet Molly, the kids dropped to the floor and hugged her, just sobbing. The man dropped to his knees and hugged the kids.
Another time I was in an ER, and a staffer asked us to visit a couple sitting outside a room; the man’s brother had just died. We approached, and I introduced them to Molly. Quietly crying, they petted Molly and talked about how the brother had a dog, and they guessed they’d be taking him home to live with them now. Countless times we see staffers who say that seeing Molly is just what they needed in that moment. Therapy dog work is not all tears; often it’s a visit with all smiles. I almost always leave feeling like we’ve done a good thing. We’ve provided a moment’s respite for someone. It’s why I keep volunteering with Molly.
I’ll run into someone who says they met me years ago when Molly visited their mom or dad in the hospital. They show me pictures of that visit. Yet, seeing the sorrow and pain in their eyes is difficult for me.”
The Rewards of a Therapy Dog
Despite the occasional tears, the experience is very rewarding for Pam. There are plenty of happy and smiling encounters. Everyone smiles when they see Molly! “It’s kind of funny, but Molly will often walk up to someone and turn her back to them. She loves having her back scratched! She also likes looking around, seeing what’s going on, and finding her next person who needs some doggy love. I almost always leave feeling like we’ve done a good thing. We’ve provided a moment’s respite for someone. It’s why I keep volunteering with Molly. We usually make a hospital visit once or twice a week. I’m retired, so I have the luxury of setting my own schedule. I try to visit each of Molly’s 5 hospitals at least once a month.”
Molly and I will be doing in-dog visits as long as her health (and mine) permit. I plan to continue virtual visits as long as those opportunities are available. During the pandemic, our local library quickly set up Children Reading to Dogs over zoom. Molly loves doing virtual visits. She can do them from the comfort of her own couch, she can nap during the visit, and she still gets treats afterward! Perfect for a couch potato pup!
Then, I learned about Pets Together. Pets Together is a national not-for-profit group whose mission is to bring virtual pet visits to those living in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other residential treatment programs. It’s an awesome program! They virtually bring pets of all types (dogs, cats, goats, horses) and people together to reduce social isolation and loneliness. For more information about volunteering or scheduling a visit with Pets Together, check out petstogether.org.
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